It can be easy to have hope for the future when things are going well; when life’s difficulties are minor or its pains brief. But, to have a sense of hope when circumstances and experience tells us that the future isn’t likely to improve seems rather foolish. Hopelessness is anguish.
Job, who endured the loss of all he had, felt this endless pain. In the midst of one of his anguished laments he cries, What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient? (Job 6:11) After losing everything, he saw no resolution to his pain.
So many within and without the church find themselves in a similar place. They are drowning in an ocean of endless hurt and seeming hopelessness. They are struggling with addiction, robbed of functional thought by mental illness, facing a painful end to their lives from disease, drifting in loneliness, watching powerlessly as those they love hurt themselves and those around them, or are enduring life’s unending drone of responsibilities until they feel apathy. What good news is there for these souls like us?
Many who grew up in church have experienced listening to someone give their “testimony.” In some older Baptist traditions, church members would go to special retreats or classes where they would be coached on how give their own testimony. There often was a tidy structure to the testimony where one would first talk about a time of pain, uncertainty, or poor choices. After this moment of crisis in the story, there came a conversion experience or an encounter with God and then soon enough everything was made right. While this certainly is a valid experience for some, more often it is not so neat for the rest of us. What we don’t often hear are testimonies of our brothers and sisters who are still adrift in the sea of pain and see no ship of relief on the horizon.
Dale Ryan, Director of the Institute for Recovery Ministry at Fuller Seminary, speaks about how we can recover true Christian testimony. Ryan works with many who are recovering from addiction or loss. Confessional testimony or truth-telling, as Ryan calls it, is a central spiritual discipline for healthy relationships between each other and God. Key to these testimonies is allowing ourselves to speak of our raw and unresolved pain in a space free of judgment and free from an immediate need for others to resolve the pain.
Imagine, if you will, listening to a someone confess their inadequacies and hurt when words may be failing them and all they can communicate is tears. Imagine, too, that in this space you wait with them. You don’t offer solutions, process, or plans. You don’t tell them it will be okay. You don’t fall into the trap of tidying up their pain with a well-intended word of, “I’ll pray for you.” Instead you sit with them in that uncomfortable, but honest place. Creating such a place for truth is rather terrifying because there is a very good chance it will draw out your own buried pain to the surface. I know I would find it extremely uncomfortable. Yet, if you remember from the story of Job, the friends who first came to him after hearing of his terrible loss were most helpful when they sat with him in his pain. It was only when they opened their mouths and attempted to find rationale for his loss that they became unhelpful.
How does honest sharing of pain with one another relate to hope? Hope is found, paradoxically, in these moments of truth because that is where God is. God is in the raw vulnerability of the sharing of our of suffering. There, our pretense and facades are worn away and the reality of our humanity is undeniable, this same humanity Christ lived. We finally see our true selves.
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. Matthew 18:20
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:2
The hope we find is that we are not alone. As we share this pain with one another we have been promised that the very essence of Christ is with us, helping us move forward. The hope is in the midst of the suffering, not in spite of it. So, this Christmas season let our testimonies be true. True to our own suffering and true in return by making space to listen to another’s suffering. True to the reality that God is with us, Immanuel. God, knowing our suffering, became human and felt what we felt, endured what we endured. God came to earth as a vulnerable little baby so that God could suffer with us. Christmas is a reminder that God is with us in our brokenness. We are not alone. There is great hope in that!